At times it seems as if the Church is falling apart, says Fr Michael G Murphy. But even then the Holy Spirit is still at work among us One can become very disheartened about the future of the Church if one accepts the criticisms of it made in most of the media. The picture of the Catholic Church as presented to us by the media brings to my mind the first verse of W B Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”: Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the alconer: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full ofpassionate intensity.
It is thought that the poet had the First World War in mind. But there are echoes in the verse of the sound and fury washing around the portals of the Catholic Church today. There is, however, one vital difference. While things may be falling apart, the centre is holding firm, and will hold firm. All will be well.
“The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ is the centre of the universe and of history.” That is the striking first sentence of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s first letter to the Church and to the World, Redemptor Hominis.
“Jesus Christ yesterday, today and the same forever” (Hebrews 13;8) is the vision statement that that great Pope gave to the Church for the new millennium. John Paul II saw Jesus Christ as the centre of everything; above all, as the centre of the Catholic Christian Church, which he came on earth to found.
If that is true, where is Jesus to be found today when the Church is in such turmoil? It is the other newly Blessed, John Henry Newman, who can supply us with the answer to that question. He does so in a sermon with the title “Christ Manifested in Remembrance”. He preached that sermon while yet an Anglican vicar, in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. The theme of that sermon is the mystery of Christ’s presence among us. Only when Jesus had gone from them into heaven did the Apostles become aware of who had been with them. As Newman put it: “Apparently, it was not till after His Resurrection, and especially after His ascension, when the Holy Ghost descended, that the Apostles understood who had been with them. When all was over they knew it, not at the time.” As for the Apostles, so it will be for us. When all this confusion and anxiety is over, the presence of Christ in the Church in our time will be revealed.
Newman continues: “Now here we see, I think, the trace of a general principle, which comes before us again and again both in Scripture and in the world, that God’s presence is not discerned at the time when it is upon us, but afterwards, when we look back upon what is gone and over. Our Saviour’s history itself will supply instances in evidence of this remarkable law.” Newman then reflects upon many of those instances, such as Our Lord’s words to the Apostle Philip at the Last Supper: “Have you been with me all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Surely Newman would want us to hold firm in our belief in the presence of Christ among us in the Church today, in spite of appearances to the contrary.
How is it that so soon after we rejoiced to hear Pope John Paul II proclaim, as had his Master: “Do not be afraid” the Church is in the grip of fear? The centre of the Catholic Church held firm on Calvary, though Christ had been abandoned, out of fear of public opinion, by all of his Apostles bar one. To give them their due, they returned to him later. After his Resurrection he gave them his greatest gift, that “power from on high”, as he had referred to it, namely the presence with them of the Holy Spirit, who became their bond with him who is the centre of the Church. The Holy Spirit led them out of the fear that had gripped them when they locked themselves into the Upper Room. There was only one way for them to receive the Holy Spirit, and that was in prayer. We are told that the Apostles were constantly at prayer, with Mary, Mother of Jesus, who would have led them to believe, as she had done, that “nothing is impossible to God”.
As a retired priest in his 80s I have great confidence that the Church is receiving a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our time. I see so many good people quietly, but constantly, praying for the Church, and particularly for its Pope, bishops and priests at this time. Newman had the highest regard for the humble hidden ones in the Church. Their prayers are gaining graces that enable the work of those in authority to be fruitful for God. Such is the economy of God’s grace. St Peter told us that “God gives his grace to the humble; he resists the proud”.
If a solution to our problems is to be found, it will come through the prayers of those who stay close to Jesus Christ, the Church’s centre. Newman, in the sermon from which I quoted earlier, reminds us that, though Christ did send the Apostles a Holy Spirit who was invisible, He came “with the greater power and comfort in as much as He was invisible; so that His presence would be more efficacious by how much it was more secret and inscrutable”.
As the bus taking me into town travels past a monastery of Poor Clare Colettine enclosed nuns, the sight of their monastery lifts my heart, for I know that from the Sisters’ prayers grace is pouring into the Church. I know of a group of lay people who are neighbours, all of whom carry heavy crosses, like cancer, who come together monthly in one of their homes for a rosary service of an hour and a half, saying all four rosaries, and offering them for the priests of the world. When they leave afterwards, it is remarkable how their faces glow with the joy of knowing that they have helped the priests at a time when the morale of many priests is at rock bottom. These folk, and many more like them, all have an unshakeable faith that whatever may appear in the media about the Church they love its centre is holding firm, and they retain their love for Jesus and his Catholic Church. As a result, they receive that peace that he promised, and which the world cannot give. We all should remember in these difficult times a constant teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman, that on life’s pilgrim way one should never move until God has moved first. That was his plea to God in his poem “The Pillar of the Cloud”, which begins with words so apt for our times: “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom.” Newman wished to do as did the Hebrew people when they were making their way to the Promised Land: never moving until God had moved first. As God is our destiny, he alone knows the direction we must take in any situation. Only God’s timing offers perfect accuracy. When someone put it to Newman that it was easy for the Hebrews, because the visible movement of the pillar of cloud, or of fire by night, let them know when God had moved forward, Newman’s response was: “That is exactly why we are given the Holy Spirit.” So we should pray that the Holy Spirit’s “kindly Light” will bring each one of us ever closer to the centre of our lives and of the Church, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God our Father.
Fr Michael G Murphy, who this year is celebrating the Golden Jubilee of his priesthood, describes himself as not being a Newman expert, but as being a grateful disciple of the Blessed over the past 50 years